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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Earlier this year it received a straightforward, well acted production at Theater For a New Audience . Later this season the innovative Elevator Repair Service, best known for Gatz, their 9-hour version of The Great Gatsby, will tackle it at the Public Theater. And now the venerable York Theater has put on a light-hearted, easy on the ear musical, renamed Desperate Measures.and subtitled "Loosely based on Shakespeare's Measure For Measure."
Loosely indeed! This is more "inspired by" than "adapted from". The John Doyle production of As You Like It I saw last week is an extensively cut but essentially true to the original adaptation. Desperate Measures does feature a hilarious "bed trick" (a plot device dating back to the Bible, and used in both Measure for Measure and All's Well that Ends Well). But this musical, with its somewhere in the 1800's West setting, gives it a new twist. It also brings its own tone and style to the few references that are indebted to the inspirational source.
However, except for a quote from Hamlet toward the end ("There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy") the place to find specific Shakespearian text is in the program's Author Note — an amusing 2-page mock interview with Shakespeare that has him answer each question with one of his most frequently quoted lines; for example, when the unnamed questioner asks "S" what he thought about turning his Measure For Measure into a 6-person Western set in the 19th Century with country and western music, the response is "What fools these mortals be."
No doubt Desperate Measure's creative team has done a lot of fine tuning since its initial presentation at the 2006 New York Musical Theatre premiere. For starters, it's now directed and choreographed by Bill Castellino, who helmed the York's most recent big success, Cagney , and designed by the York's own artistic director James Morgan. Castellino smoothly steers the six-member ensemble through the various locations of Morgan's abstract yet fully-furnished feeling scenery. And all the performers rate an A+ for their acting and singing.
Peter Kellog's book dishes up all the elements of an old-fashioned B-movie: Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan) havng murdered someone in self-defense is in jail and about to be hanged. The fair-minded Sheriff Green (Peter Saide) enlists Johnny's sister Susanna, now a novice nun named Sister Mary Jo, to plead with the hard-line, Trump-ish Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman) for his pardon.
The lecherous Governor offers a tough deal: Johnny's freedom for a night in bed with him by the chaste young nun. Schemes to outfox the Governor follow, the main one being for Bella (Lauren Molina), Johnny's less virtuous lady love, to take Susanna's place in the Governor's bed.
While the bed trick works, it takes another act of complications to bring about the all's well that ends well ending. You see Bella so successfuly mixes chaste and sexy when she takes over the bed from Susanna that the Governor falls in love with her. And so, he renegs on his bargain, and says he'll only free Johnny if she'll marry him.
But never fear. . . though Shakespeare scholars feel that only the first half of Measure For Measure's tragi-comedy classification is correct, the emphasis here is on comedy. Thus, the bed trick that ends act one turns into a bride-switching trick for for a rousing finale that unsurprisingly unites Susanna and Bella with the right men.
These ridiculous, over the top efforts to keep Johnny Blood's neck out of the noose ominously hanging at one side of the stage aren't especially illuminating or as darkly satiric as Shakespeare's version. But who cares when Desperate Measures is such a pleasurable escape from the tragedies all around our immediate and distant world.
The actors milk their broadly drawn characters for maximum humor and beautifully render David Friedman's catchy score and Peter Kellog's very smart lyrics. Emma Degerstedt brings a gorgeous voice and lots of charm to the show's heroine, as does Lauren Molina as the less demure saloon singer Bella.
Peter Saide's Sheriff Green is aptly tall, dark and handsome to insure that Susanna will no more spend the rest of her days as a nun than Maria in The Sound of Music. He too is a wonderful singer.
Conor Ryan gets the not too swift Johnny Blood just right. Gary Marachek makes the most of the relatively minor though important role of a drunken priest. Best of all is Nick Wyman, as the show's villain, the Governor. Wyman who's been with the show since its NYMF trial run, also has the most impressive resume.
No small measure of the eye and ear pleasing aspects of this big little musical is the work of the other designers, especially Nicole Wee's period, place and character supporting costumes. Bravo also to the musicians who play Friedman's lovely score without ever letting their instruments (piano, guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle and mandolin) drown out Kellog's very much worth hearing lyrics.
While Desperate Measures sticks to its aim to be a light-hearted diversion, the Sheriff does get to take a poke at the people currently governing us so poorly. As he puts it: "Maybe not right now . . . but when honest, decent men will be elected and crooks like you (meaning the Governor) who now go undetected will finish up a distant also-ran." Amen to that. The Sheriff deserves to get the girl!
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Loosely Based Measure For Measure
Book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg and music by David Friedman
Directed and choreographed by Bill Castellino
Music direction and Orchestrations by David Hancock
Turner. Cast: Emma Degerstedt (Susanna/Sister Mary Jo), Gary Marachek (Father Morse), Lauren Molina (Bella Rose), Conor Ryan (Johnny Blood), Peter Saide (Sheriff Green), Nick Wyman (Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber).
Cast: Emma Degerstedt (Susanna/Sister Mary Jo), Gary Marachek (Father Morse), Lauren Molina (Bella Rose), Conor Ryan (Johnny Blood), Peter Saide (Sheriff Green), Nick Wyman (Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber)
Sets: James Morgan
Costumes: Nicole Wee
Lighting: Paul Mller
Sound: Julian Evans
Properties: Deb Gaouette Stage Manager: Kevin Maloof
Running time: approx 2 hours plus 1 intermission.
York Theatre Company at Saint Peter's 619 Lexington Avenue (212) 935-5820 www.yorktheatre.org
From 9/19/17; opening 10/01/17;closing 10/29/17
. Performances: Tuesdays & Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays at 2:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m.* & 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Special matinees Wednesday, September 27 and Thursday, September 28, both at 2:30 p.m.No evening performances on those dates.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/29 press preview
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